A recent convert to Catholicism, in response to last Friday’s post on the problems of free will, evil, and Hell, asks some really hard questions. There are actually a lot of good comments on that post, so if it’s a subject that interests you, you should check it out. Let me start out with two hypotheticals, before moving on to readers’ questions.
I. The Mystery of Free Will: Does God Will Us to Sin?
Here’s what the reader, Toenail of the Body, asked:
Question 1: If we claim God is omniscient and omnipotent, then He didn’t just create the damned and “knew” they would fall- He created them to fall. This is a distinction that I have really wrestled with and I’m hoping you can maybe spread some light on it. I realize that the Church says there is free will and I believe that; you might call my faith blind faith though. So, if you have any thoughts I’d appreciate them.
The first sentence (the one in red) is untrue. The Church explicitly denies it in CCC 1037: “God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end.”
This is the mistake Calvinists often make. But if it were true, it would mean that God is the Author of confusion and the Creator of evil. But 1 Corinthians 14:33 that “God is not the author of confusion.” And He can’t be the Creator of evil, because it’s contrary to His nature. 1 John 1:5 says that “God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all.” If He has no potentiality for evil, it’s impossible for Him to create it.
Even though God creates man, and even though He creates each individual knowing how they’ll use their free will, free will is still a Divine spark. He doesn’t simply design us as robots, but creates as thinking beings capable of doing good or evil. This is what I meant in the earlier post, when I said that Genesis 1:26, in which God decides to make us in His Image “isn’t a physical description, but a spiritual one.”
Let’s take the four major categories:
- With the forces of nature, we can speak of mere causality – you lower water to below freezing, and it begins to turn into ice. It has no say in the matter, no self-awareness, and simply isn’t alive. It’s inorganic matter. So it is a force acted upon by external influences, and has no will at all.
- Plants are living, but appear to be exclusively a product of their environment. They cannot be trained, and they have no will.
- Animals appear to have some degree of a will, but are still governed by instinct. They’re essentially a product of their biology and environment.
- Finally, God, however, isn’t a mere force of nature, and external forces cannot act on Him in a way that causes Him to change. In fact, God never changes. As James 1:17 tells us, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, Who does not change like shifting shadows.” He simply has no room for improvement, so there’s never a need to change. So God has pure Will, without being controlled in even the slightest by things like “nature” or “nurture.”
As humans, we are both fleshly and spiritual being. As such, we can behave like animals, acting on mere impulses or hormones, or allowing their lives to be defined by their biology or environment. But unique amongst Creation, we possess the desire and (to an extent) the capability for self-improvement. That is, we can look at our lives, decide that we don’t like the decisions we’ve been making, or the way we’ve been living, and begin to live a different way. In doing so, we’re acting upon a spiritual impulse, whether we realize it or not. We’re recognizing that our will exists, and using it to overcome our nature and our nurture.
That, I should point out, can be good or bad. For example, the Nazis (influenced by thinkers like Nietzsche) idolized man’s will, and used it to act in a way so disturbingly demonic that it goes beyond the worst of what we see in the animal kingdom. You’ll see some pretty barbaric violence amongst animals. But what you don’t see are animals putting one another in concentration camps. That’s an evil that requires human intelligence and will.
So we can say that (a) the will exists, and (b) we are capable of willing good or evil. This means that when God creates us with a free will, He’s not simply programming us to act good or evil. If that were the case, the will would be no different than nature or nurture, and we’d be no different than animals (or even plants). Rather, He’s creating us with a will, similar to His own Will. We can either use it in conformity with His, or in rebellion from His.
Now, when God creates us, He already knows how we’re going to use that free will, certainly. But that’s different than willing it. When you have a baby, you know that baby will need to have her diaper changed, and will puke on your nice things, wake you up, and do all sorts of impolite things at inappropriate times. But no sane person has a baby in order to get someone to puke on their nice things, and wake them up at odd hours of the night. That may be a reason to join a fraternity, but not to have a child. Rather, you ideally want to have a child out of love, and are willing to put up with those “unpleasantries.”
Likewise, God creates even the damned out of love. Because He’s in the eternal present, He foresees that things will end up badly for them, but He still loves them, and wishes that they’d turn away from their evil.
II. A Keen Insight into the Transition from Puritanism to Unitarianism
The reader’s next question is incredible insightful:
Question 2: The above viewpoint propagates some additional questions about the “fairness” of Hell. If some were created just to be thrown into hell, then is that not a little “unfair” of God?
Yes. It’s fortunate that this viewpoint is wrong (as discussed in the answer to Question 1). Because if some people are predestined to Hell, and can never do anything to avoid it, then yes, that would seem to be quite unjust of God. To eternally punish someone for the authentically unavoidable violates even a basic sense of justice (and God’s Justice is higher, not lower, than our own). It also violates everything we hear from Scripture. That’s simply not a description of the God of the Bible.
The Calvinist answer is that we sin, and therefore merit Hell. Fair, but only if sin is our fault. If we have no control over our actions, we shouldn’t be punished for them. Take the famous 19th century case in which a woman named Esther Griggs dreamed that her house was on fire, picked up her baby, while yelling, “Save my baby!” and threw the baby out the window to the street below, killing the baby.
|This post mentions John Calvin and Tiger Sharks.
I can’t avoid a Calvin and Hobbes reference.
If Ms. Griggs were awake, and aware that no fire existed, her actions would constitute murder. But since she was asleep, and did not will to murder her child (she was trying to save the child from an imagined fire), and could not will to murder her child (since she was asleep), she was innocent of any crime. So even secular law distinguishes between willful acts and omissions, and things which happened which we don’t will.
Similarly, if a woman dies in labor, we don’t accuse her child of murder. He wanted nothing more than to be born, and could do nothing other than what he did. Accusing him of a crime he has no control over would be barbaric. To sentence a man to even a short stint in prison for the crime of being born would be absurd. All the more so to sentence a man to an eternity in Hell.
I mentioned in my last post that God doesn’t send tiger sharks to Hell. It wouldn’t make any sense: they’re acting on blind instinct, and have no knowledge of good and evil. The Catholic answer to Calvinism is to look to Scripture: Genesis 2:16-17 and Gen. 3:6-7 make it clear that knowledge of good and evil is a prerequisite for damnation. And knowledge of good and evil is only a sensible prerequisite for damnation if that knowledge somehow gives you the power to choose or avoid sin. Otherwise, countless Scriptural passages are drained of any sense.
The reader concludes:
I believe some retort to this unfairness by asking who we are to question God. While that is a very nice platitude, I believe it avoids the question. Others have challenged this by redefining hell to mean a complete abolition of mankind. Not only is the body not resurrected, but the soul is utterly destroyed. Thus, there is not a punishment that has an infinite duration, but rather a punishment that cannot be undone. Thoughts?
This is exactly the reason that I believe that the Puritans became Unitarians
. They started out as Calvinists, realized that their doctrine of double predestination appeared to make God quite evil, and sought to soften it by imagining that since God controls everyone’s eternal fate (and free will is illusory), then He’d just steer everyone to Heaven. I find it fascinating that this reader started with the same false premise (that God wills some to go to Hell) and ended up rationalizing it in the same way (maybe an eternal Hell doesn’t exist). It certainly reinforces the Puritan to Unitarian argument, I’d say.